Sweet Sixteen team rivalries aside, everyone is a fan of Rupp's soft-serve ice cream

rcopley@herald-leader.comMarch 19, 2014 

When Ron Weathers is working regular concession stands at Rupp Arena — where the hotdogs, popcorn and sodas are sold — the No. 1 question he gets is, "Where's the ice cream?

"I say, 'Find the big line,'" Weathers said with a laugh Wednesday morning as he prepared to work at one of Rupp's four soft-serve ice cream stands at the Whitaker Bank/Kentucky High School Athletics Association Boys' Sweet Sixteen basketball tournament.

Ice cream is served at most Rupp Arena events, but the high school basketball crowd seems to have a special affinity for swirls of ready-to-eat frozen goodness piled atop a little yellow cone.

Brian McMillin, concessions department manager for Lexington Center Corp., which manages Rupp Arena, said that during a typical five-day tournament, the arena will go through more than 750 gallons of soft-serve ice cream, which comes only in vanilla, chocolate and a swirl of the two flavors.

The crowd at each session of the tournament consumes a little more than do fans at a typical University of Kentucky basketball game, so by the time the weekend is over, high school basketball boosters will have gobbled up between a third and half a season's worth of soft-serve.

Ask fans why they love it so much, and they tend to respond with looks that say, isn't that obvious? It's ice cream.

"We had it last year and it's great," said Tommy Stewart of Boyd County, whose son, Blake, 13, just bought the first of what will probably be several cones over the weekend.

"I had four last year," said Blake, who was at the Sweet Sixteen to root on the Fleming County High School Panthers. Asked whether he had a favorite flavor, he said, "I mix it up."

Pouring Stewart's cone, the first of thousands this weekend, was Savannah Hunsucker, an old hand at soft-serve ice cream — as old a hand as one can be at age 29.

Hunsucker started working concessions at Rupp in 2004, brought in by her mother, Karen, a Rupp concessions veteran. Just a year later, Savannah Hunsucker found her niche in soft-serve, and it's not something just anyone can do.

"Step one, you make sure the cone has a bottom on it, otherwise the ice cream will go everywhere," she said, from experience.

She held the cone right under the machine's vanilla dispenser and filled the bottom with ice cream. The machine, by the way, is named Steve.

Once the bottom is filled, "you just start swirling," she said, slowly rotating and lowering the cone as four rows of frozen sugar and milk piled on top.

The whole transaction, from order to delivering the cone, can take as little as 15 seconds. One of the virtues of ice cream is its simplicity: one product, one price ($3.50), only three flavors, so it's not as if customers have to decide whether they want chips or nachos with their hot dogs and what to get to drink. So even though the lines for ice cream can stretch out of sight from Hunsucker and Weathers' post at sections 21 and 22 of Rupp, they usually move quickly.

Hunsucker pours her cones to a count of "one-two-three-four." Her mother just goes by feel.

"You have to have a rhythm to it when you do it so much," said Savannah Hunsucker, who estimated that she will make more than 5,000 cones during the Sweet Sixteen weekend.

"There are some people who come here to Sweet Sixteen that also come to UK games, but I don't recognize them without their UK stuff on," Karen Hunsucker said.

There's one fan in particular, she said, who "would come buy ice cream, or we would lose. I remember one game, we were behind, and she hadn't come up yet, and I was getting worried. Then, late in the game, she showed up and we pulled it out. We won."

In general, losing is not good for ice cream sales. But usually during a game, even as other concessions have lulls, the ice cream line stays strong.

"It's one of the few cold and sweet items we have to contrast with other items like hot dogs and pizza," McMillin said of its appeal.

Like a good bartender, Savannah Hunsucker says she gets to know customers and their orders.

"I had one little girl who always got chocolate with a spoon, and then she switched to swirl," Hunsucker says. "I said, 'You can't do this to me.'"

Not everyone in Rupp was a regular on Wednesday morning. Howard Ludwig of Cincinnati stepped up and bought a cone first thing. He said it was his first time at Rupp; he was encouraged by some friends to come to the Sweet Sixteen.

Giving his vanilla cone a lick, he said, "It's really good."

Before the tournament even tipped off, the soft-serve ice cream cone won another fan.

Rich Copley: (859) 231-3217. Email: rcopley@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @copiousnotes.

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